Lattice Confinement Fusion Could Melt Through Miles of Ice to Reach Possible Living Oceans on Europa

NASA has funded a phase 1 NIAC (NASA Innovation Advanced Concepts) study to get through about 24 miles (40 kilometers) of ice on Europa and other moons with liquid oceans.

Jupiter’s satellite Europa almost certainly hides a global saltwater ocean beneath its icy surface. Chemistry at the ice surface and ocean-rock interface might provide the building blocks for life, and NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will assess Europa’s habitability.

NASA has a requirement to penetrate the many kilometer-thick ice caps of Icy World Oceans in its search for extraterrestrial life. These worlds, notably Ceres, Enceladus, Pluto and Europa, have ice caps estimated as up to 40 km deep with a liquid water ocean beneath, likely heated by the parent planets tidal forces, or, in the case of Pluto or Ceres, residual radioactive decay. These bodies are unique where space vacuum meets ice, with striated surfaces showing evidence of tectonic activity and strain-induced outgassing.

A heating or boring probe is proposed to access the oceans beneath the icy shelves that will be encountered in these searches. The proposed probe needs to contend with hydrostatic ice and water pressure, provide surface communications, and a sample return to surface. The ice composition, whether containing ammonia or silicate inclusions, its depth and temperature affect the ice phase, structure and density influencing probe travel. Upon reaching the ocean, the probe may encounter extraterrestrial life forms that attempt to metabolize the probe.

Icy World researchers have proposed using a nuclear powered, heated probe. However, rather than require either the plutonium-238 radioisotope heat source or an enriched uranium-235 fission reactor, with significant launch safety costs, we propose making use of the recent Lattice Confinement Fusion source used to efficiently fast-fission either depleted uranium or thorium in a molten lithium matrix. The resulting hybrid fusion fast fission nuclear reactor will be smaller than a traditional fission reactor where a lower mass power source is needed and provide efficient operation with thermal waste heat from reactor heats probe to melt through ice shelf to sub-ice oceans.

17 thoughts on “Lattice Confinement Fusion Could Melt Through Miles of Ice to Reach Possible Living Oceans on Europa”

  1. Why so exotic a power source? Wouldn’t a more mundane robust fission reactor based design be cheaper and more reliable? It could generate plenty of heat and electric power for years in a submarine. Maybe it can trail a fiber optic cable to a surface transmitter. If the ice is too active, it could explore for a couple months then physically return to the surface to transmit its data.

    Starship ought to be able to land a 50 ton robotic nuclear sub on Europa and with that sort of liberal mass budget it might be relatively quickly and inexpensively designed and built – by comparison with the fussy billion dollar+ robotic probes that need exotic designs to save mass.

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    • NASA doesn’t any more consider their job to be getting space stuff done. It’s advancing the bleeding edge of technology to get space stuff done.

      They find old tech that works kind of boring, and not worth using, if there’s something bleeding edge they might spend 10 times as much on.

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  2. What I want to understand is not how we melt through the ice but rather how do we get any information back to the surface. The ice will refreeze around the warm bubble caused by the fusion/heat, freezing the trailing cable in place, so when you combine this with the fact that the ice will move presumably the cable will shred/rupture/fall apart etc. This seems like a difficult problem to solve.

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  3. These moons are not being heated by the radioactive decay of uranium and other unstable elements. Instead they are being heated by tidal flexing. during etched orbit the shape of the moon changes slightly to the tides forces of it neiboring moons or its slightly elliptical orbit around the planet. The generates enough heat to creat a ice covered ocean. Jupiters small moon IO is so hot due to tidal flying that it is the most volcanically active body in the solar system.

    The ice coving these oceans is very thick so getting any data backs going to requires a long and have fiber optic cabler wire. or an electrical. This weight plus the weight of the reactor needed to melt through the ice is going to mean a very heavy probe and it will be some time before we have the resources to launch such a mission. Just getting a lander without the ice probe will be very difficult and expensive. the cheapest rout to study these moons is to land near a place were water recently made it to the surface and froze. And to land a probe at that place and to test the frozen surface ice for the presence of bacteria and genetic material material.

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    • Brian distinguished between the two cases.
      “heated by the parent planets tidal forces, or, in the case of Pluto or Ceres, residual radioactive decay”

      The moons are being tidally flexed. The free flying dwarf planets are not.

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  4. I think we should put off such a mission until we can obtain more information about what we may be influencing or disrupting. Releasing large amounts of gas by disrupting supercritical gas deposits might destroy what we are looking for. Evidence of biology if it exists may be detectable at cracks in the ice on the surface. Let’s start with that—when it’s more affordable. Remember that while there lots of more wasteful uses of tax dollars, this is still being funded using money taken from hard working people and businesses whose investments employs them.

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    • You don’t have to worry about that; A probe like this isn’t going to produce an open channel to the surface, it’s barely going to have enough power to maintain a fairly thin sheath of melted water around itself, with the ice behind refreezing fairly rapidly.

      In fact, the biggest challenge after getting through the ice is sending data back. I favor trailing an optical fiber, for a good high bandwidth connection.

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    • Remember these frozen worlds are still exposed to daily meteor impacts. Any physical damage from a probe from Earth is going to be absolutely negligible by comparison.

      Biological contamination from Earth is a real worry however.

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  5. So theres this primitive civilisation down there, stagnant for millions of years. Then suddenly this alien spacecraft drops from the skies, firing a heat ray underneath it and incinerating all before it. When the aliens do finally fight back and defeat the monster, it sprays them all with radioactive material. Its going to be like War Of The Worlds in reverse.

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  6. This sort of fusion requires a continual energy input to sustain, it’s incapable of being self-sustaining, of achieving ignition. That’s fine if the energy multiplier is high enough, but I haven’t been able to find anything on how many watts of heat you get out for every watt in.

    That’s kind of important. If it’s in the thousands, heck, yeah. If it’s in the single digits, why not just skip it and go with the reactor? And why can’t I find anything discussing this absolutely critical point? Is the answer embarrassing, maybe?

    So, let’s see. We’re talking deuterium fusion. The reaction yields 17.6 MeV. In the experiments they used 2.9MeV gamma rays to trigger the reaction. If every gamma ray triggered a reaction, that’s a gain of 6, but that’s highly unlikely. You can also get stripping reactions, which are endothermic, and they don’t say the proportion. And, I suppose, you could get a chain reaction that just peters out, but gets you several fusion reactions first.

    So, a worthwhile gain is possible, so is the gain being small enough to be a waste of time. And, again, I’m not seeing anything in the literature saying what multiplier is actually being seen. But, my search was brief; Any info on that score?

    I’m afraid this looks an awful lot like NASA’s bad habit of going with the proposal that looks like it will advance technology the most, rather than the proposal that looks like it will most reliably get the job done. That’s a really, really bad habit of theirs, and why their budget is so inefficient at getting things accomplished.

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      • Their track record today, or their track record back when I was a kid?

        Because today they definitely spend too much on stuff that is entirely speculative and never pans out.

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    • By its many independent replications across time, so does LENR, the problem is the predictability of the reaction.

      I haven’t checked lattice confinement fusion statistics, are they good?

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